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Analysts of European politics have of late noticed a strange convergence between the extreme left and the extreme right. Radical populist parties of all stripes, increasingly strong, rail against the EU’s distant bureaucracy, against craven elites, against unaccountable decision makers. Marine Le Pen of France’s extreme right-wing National Front shocked some by “endorsing” the hard-left SYRIZA party in Greece’s January general election and celebrating its victory as a “democratic slap” against the EU. SYRIZA then reinforced the perception of left-right confluence by entering into a governing coalition with a small right-wing nationalist party, the Independent Greeks (ANEL).
Circumstances like this often prompt the observation that, at their extremes, left and right touch. That this well-worn truism calls to mind M.C. Escher-esque images of warped lines and loopy curves should indicate some confusion in the way we typically categorize left-right distinctions today. So what kind of shorthand can help us better understand contemporary European politics? The European Council on Foreign Relations’ José Ignacio Torreblanca has advanced the following theory:
Europe is undergoing a political reconfiguration, but not around the left-right axis, nor along the fault-line between North and South; not even, as we had at times expected, in concentric circles, with a tightly integrated Euro-core and, surrounding it, circles of states with varying degrees of affinity to the union […] Europe is being reshaped around a sovereignty-populist axis – in other words, around a resurgence of nationalism […]
Torreblanca’s explanation is clear and plausible. It is obviously true that many of Europe’s populist parties champion the cause of national sovereignty against the encroachment of EU institutions. This is true of the extreme-right nationalists (Ms. Le Pen’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik, for instance), anti-elite populists (UKIP, Alternative für Deutschland, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy), and the anti-austerity leftists of Greece, Spain, and elsewhere.
But does this commonality constitute a unified political camp in the way that Mr. Torreblanca suggests with his talk of a new “axis?” The idea that “nationalism” is a unifying principle in a multinational context is itself counterintuitive—aren’t nationalisms by their very nature each distinct and chauvinistic making it oxymoronic to talk about a multinational alliance of nationalists? When variegated nationalist movements begin to team up, some additional factor must be in play. Indeed, the frequent charges levelled by economically depressed countries that German severity and self-interest are behind the EU’s deflationary policies suggest that they see themselves less as a multinational league of nationalists than concerned international populations suffering the ravages of a foreign country’s selfish nationalism.
The national sovereignty explanation is also difficult to apply to the biggest crisis facing Europe at the moment—the Ukrainian conflict, in which Russian-backed separatists are intent on dismembering the Ukrainian state. The supposed nationalist camp is notoriously Russia-friendly—SYRIZA and ANEL have ties to Russian nationalists, Hungary’s Jobbik has become vehemently pro-Kremlin over the last decade, Le Pen’s National Front accepted a substantial loan from a Russian bank, and Spain’s SYRIZA-idolizing protest party Podemos has voted against sanctions on Russia. The national sovereignty camp appears curiously complacent faced with serious infringements on another state’s sovereignty. It could perhaps be argued that their sympathy for Russian-speaking rebels who want a closer relationship with the Russian motherland is part of a broader consistent ethno-nationalist philosophy, but given that the Russian side continually justifies its actions by condemning the purported nationalism of the post-Maidan Ukrainian government, this makes little sense. Thus a supposed dedication to the idea of national sovereignty would seem to be revealed as illusory by their indifference to the Russian landgrab in Ukraine.
To argue that European politics can be mapped along a “national-populist axis” also implies that on the other end of the axis there are determined and programmatic supranationalists. Certainly, European federalists exist, and European integration has always been an elitist, technocratic project. But the EU has hardly been making great strides toward an “ever-closer union” in the last decade. On the contrary, it has been in a state of permanent crisis and muddling-through. The economic crisis has forced some steps forward in fiscal integration and banking union, but any real moves towards debt mutualization or fiscal union would be fought ferociously by fiscally cautious northern politicians and voters, and likely declared illegal by the German Constitutional Court. The supposed supranationalist camp, then, looks decidedly insubstantial.
This bring us to a phrase frequently used to describe the protest parties of Europe: “anti-system.” For all its vagueness, there is something accurate about this term—in fact, its inherent vagueness is crucially important. The protest parties of Europe are defined, above all, by their oppositional stance—a statement so obvious it borders on the tautological. They oppose political elites, EU institutions, international lenders and financial establishments, and in many cases NATO membership and the influence of the United States. They often oppose neoliberalism and globalization. In short, they oppose the “system.”
Given the EU’s track record over the last decade, intense dissatisfaction with the prevailing system is hardly irrational. And the problems facing Europe are so complicated that it is unsurprising that this results in a stance of rejection and strident protest rather than measured and methodical reform. The underdog narrative is also tremendously powerful on a psychological level. To define oneself in opposition to a monolithic, oppressive “system” is much more powerful than being an orthodox leftist or rightist, or even a nationalist; political ideologies generally draw their energy from a narrative of grievance and revolt, and not the other way around. The vagueness of the “anti-system” label is evidenced also by the insubstantiality of many protest parties’ programs—a deficiency that is most blatant in a group like the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, but which also applies to an extent to parties like Podemos, which is constantly criticized for its vague program, or even SYRIZA, which advocates policies which seem impossible given the constraints placed on it by the structure of the EU.
Defining oneself in opposition to a vague but domineering “system” can also lead to strange sympathies in the international realm. There is no logical reason why a party like Podemos—the avatars of Chavez-inspired populism in the economic realm and scourges of a calcified elite “caste” in the political—should sympathize with an ultra-cynical oligarch like Vladimir Putin. But by successfully casting himself as the hard-headed, astute, and unflinchingly defiant rival of the US, NATO, and the “international community” in general, Putin wins the sympathies of those who define themselves primarily by their opposition to the system. Consider, for example, the Russian news network RT’s brilliant strategy of advertising itself as an alternative news-source for the discriminating and shrewd, when in reality it is a state-run propaganda organ.
The dilemma for Europe stems from the fact that the goals of the “system” end of the axis are nearly as muddled as those of its “anti-system” haters. The anti-system assault could be withstood if the European political establishment had a confident and coherent identity, program, and mission. Instead, it stumbles from crisis to crisis, with Germany coming to the fore almost by default, not only in the economic realm but also in international diplomacy. This is no way to inspire loyalty, much less preempt wholesale condemnation by radicals, “right” or “left.” The established “system” must figure out how to explain its purpose and mission in an inspiring and emotionally satisfying way. Until it does, psychological and emotional momentum will remain with those who rage against it.
–Joshua Dill is a Pannonius Fellow of the Common Sense Society. He holds a degree in German and European Studies from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.